Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - All Hail the Tapers!

By Blair Jackson

Spurred by a comment I read somewhere online, I decided to download the Dead’s January 10, 1979, concert at Nassau Coliseum. I have an old tape of it somewhere, but I never got it digitally, so it could have been 15 or 20 years since I’d heard it. I remembered that the second set contained both “Dark Star” and “St. Stephen” (the last time those appeared in the same show), but not much else. What a show! The “Dark Star” is my favorite of all the post-hiatus versions, and everything else the band played that night is full of energy and excitement.

Why has this fantastic show not been released? Because it’s not in the Grateful Dead tape vault. The versions we all love so much and which have blown thousands of minds through the years are audience recordings. To be honest, I don’t whether I downloaded the Bob Wagner or the Keith Gatto version from the other day; I wasn’t paying attention. But it sounded wonderful and really had that you-are-there quality that the best audience tapes have.

And it got me thinking: Thank God Bob and Keith were on hand to capture that incredible Grateful Dead performance (and no doubt there were other surreptitious tapers on hand whose handiwork is not up on Archive), because otherwise it would be lost to the ages, recalled fondly and with increasing dimness only by those who were lucky enough to be there that night. Look at all the shows listed in Deadbase that we literally know nothing about, because there is no extant recording. We don’t know a single song that was played. It’s possible, likely even, that dozens of the greatest shows the band played in the late ’60s will never be heard.

We’ve all been spoiled by the incredible bounty of soundboard tapes that have filtered out of the vault through various means over the years—one or two at a time, in giant batches like the Betty Boards, and in a flood after the death of Dick Latvala in 1999. Go onto Archive and you can hear nearly every show in the GD Vault in good quality. But there are holes in the vault collection that have been filled by audience tapes that have circulated and even been upgraded technically through the years—I’m thinking of the fall ’70 Capitol Theatre (Port Chester) shows, for example, and various others that for whatever reason are not in the vault (Greek ’81!).

I remember a time when most of my tape collection consisted of audience-made recordings, and I treasured them as much as the best-sounding SBDs I owned. When I consider some of the best shows I attended—Winterland 3/18/77, Frost 10/10/82, Santa Fe 9/10/83, to name just three—it was the audience tapes that let me relive them most fully. When the soundboards for those shows came to me years later, I dug the improved fidelity and presence (Phil, in particular, always sounded better on SBDs), but I missed the crowd and the feeling of the space the show was played in, which the audience tapes and a little imagination provided.

GD live mixer and taper’s friend Dan Healy
(right) in front of the first taper’s section at BCT, 1984.
Photo: David Gans © 2012

During the years I put out The Golden Road magazine (’84-’93), I tried my damndest to hear every show the Dead played, and I relied completely on the work of tapers—most of whom I didn’t know—and a network of kind traders who kept me supplied. Sometimes the tapes sounded pretty bad—hey, beggars can’t be choosers! But more often than not they allowed me to instantly put myself in Saratoga or Chicago or Atlanta to hear what went down. Just this second, I flashed on the audience tape of 10/31/85 from Columbia, South Carolina—not great quality, but I still listened to it over and over that fall: “Werewolves,” “Shakedown,” “Playing” … good stuff. I’ve never heard the SBD version, and I see there’s a SBD-matrixed-with-AUD version on Archive. I’ll have to check that out. So many shows, so little time.

I own recordings that were marred by folks in the audience talking too loud, whistling obnoxiously or singing along off-key, or the taper being in a bad spot in the venue. But I developed a very high tolerance for those sorts of distractions and learned how to listen through them to the partially obscured music. There are things that people shout on certain tapes that have become part of the show in my mind. “Hey, Jerry, don’t play ‘U.S. Blues’!” rings out before the encore on one. On another, there’s an intrusive discussion near the taper’s mikes about going to a bar mitzvah—in the middle of the heaviest part of “China Doll”! There are times when I’ve wanted to jump into the tape to strangle someone. But mostly I shrug and think, “Oh, yeah, that guy.”

Beginning with the Berkeley Community Theatre shows in the fall of 1984, the tapers finally became legit, with their own section, usually behind the soundboard, at every concert, and both the number and quality of the audience tapes improved dramatically. The elaborate hijinks that had been part of the art of smuggling in recorders and microphones virtually disappeared overnight (though blatant recording with tape decks and elevated mikes had been tolerated, if not officially endorsed, for years before it was formalized). The new challenge: recording unobtrusively in the sweet spot between the stage and the front-of-house mixer.

Veterans of the pre-tapers’ section era of audience recording all have a million war stories about the extreme measures they often had to take to secretly bring their equipment into venues, risking confiscation, ejection or both. Wires were snipped mid-show occasionally, cassettes crushed under roadies’ boots, pleas and begging ignored. It was tough and stressful, but the payoff was worth it, and they did it for all of us!

What is rarely mentioned, too, is the fact that Dead tapers single-handedly invented the audience recording phenomenon and embraced the challenge of also recording hundreds of other acts, from the Allmans to Dylan to Clapton to Springsteen, and inspiring fans of other bands to do the same. There is scarcely a major concert that happens anywhere that is not taped illegally by someone. Of course, smartphones have put no-fuss audio/video recording capability into the hands of just about everyone (and I do appreciate being able to see a song or two—or maybe an entire show—on YouTube; odious and obnoxious as the sight of hands thrust into the air holding cell phones can be for those actually attending the concert). But it’s still hard to beat a beautifully made clandestine recording by a soulful audio pirate with good equipment.

Any tales of taping you’d like to share with the group? Or care to weigh in about your own feelings about audience tapes and what they’ve meant to you or the scene?


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marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007

You should write a book, what with this and the dragon story...

cactuswax's picture
Joined: Jun 7 2007

Great, great story. I was with you all the way.

Joined: Oct 1 2007
Yea Oroboros!

Nice tales, I suspect we spent some shows smiling at each other across the floor with our mic poles in the air! Hope you is having one fine day!

Joined: Nov 3 2010
Who's Driving This Boat?

I'm not as big on listening to AUD tapes as many, I just need the clarity of a good SBD, but I agree there are a lot of fun moments to relive and notice on AUD tapes.

I remember one I've not listened to in years, I think its from Dallas or Houston in 1988 and in the middle of space some Head, probably tripping, yells "Who's driving this boat?" That one always cracked us up.

On the FM 'cast of 12-31-87 throughout the show in between songs I can hear a dude named George I used to know from Sonoma State making a distinctive whooping bird call sound that was kind of his trademark. Everytime I hear it, I think of George.

Joined: Jun 6 2007
Great stories, Oroboros!

Thanks for sharing those wild adventures! And, of course, thanks for the tapes! Lies in the service of taping are not lies--I'm pretty sure that's even in the New Testament.

Many years ago, for a brief period, I got to know (Dr.) Bob Wagner. Great guy; quiet, unassuming... did so much important work! Lost touch with him years ago...

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
geezer tales

back in the day when it was a big hassle to tape Jerry shows at the Keystones, I sometimes brought in bits and pieces of James Olness's equipment along with my camera gear, because separated from the D5 it didn't look so suspicious.

And yeah, there's that memorable "Don't Let Go" at the Keystone Berkeley in March of '83 or so, where Jerry takes off to Mars or thereabouts in the solo, which goes on for quite a while and leaves some doubt that he's coming back (hey, I was on the rail at the time, it was incredible), and the taper is discovered in mid-solo and gets into a shouting match with the bouncer in the tape I've got.

Ah, history.

Joined: Jun 4 2007
Addendum and apology, I am constitutionally incapable of

making a long story short. So please forgive my long windedness.

And another note, in 1979, someone broke into our rental house and stole my Nak 550, my stereo and about 500 albums (those were big CDs for people too young to remember ;o} ).

However, the thief did not take my master tapes of the Dead, Kotke, etc. I am eternally grateful (pun intended) that even though I had a big $ loss, I still had my master recordings from those shows. I felt lucky. And I have shared them often with friends and strangers alike, including many here at this site via the Vineyard. Thanks for all who I have traded with and those who have shared so much with me, especially with documenting the adventures of this wild band of hooligans whom we have followed around the world for the last many decades.

You all are appreciated.

"The bad news is, there is no key to the universe,
the good news is, it was never locked".

Joined: Jun 4 2007
A taping tale from 1978, and first I gotta say that some

Heads don't recall or relate to the days when getting gear into a show could be quite a challenge. Folks, sometimes it was easy but as Blair alludes to in the above description, in the old days you often had to be very sneaky (wheelchair gambit, etc.) or work your best rap on the venue staff to gain entrance with your set-up intact. And then there were those problems if the venue staff decided to intervene during your taping of the show,..ouch. You really had to think on your feet back in those days.

Blair please attach the GEEZER ALERT warning sticker to this story as the one is from a while back.

I had some experience with several taping scenarios but let's start with when I heard the Dead were going to come back to Nebraska in July of 1978. To the Omaha Civic Auditorium. We got there and the venue was half full (about 4,000) but everyone was chomping at the bit in anticipation to hear the band since they hadn't been to Nebraska for about 5 years. And of course the Dead had just played those stellar shows in '77. There was no hassle getting the deck in this time, but in these days were no 'tapers sections' and each venue or even staff may present a different challenge. But not here, thank goodness.

Out in the hallway, the Hell's Angels wandered about sporting full colors and big grins. They must have been transporting 'party favors' and decided to take in a show. Or maybe the Angels were just road tripping with the band (although I didn't see them at the next few shows). My buddy even brought his 68 year old mother to the show. She sat up in the stands "It is just too loud down there!"

Anyway, I headed down to the floor with my Nak 550 to set up in front of the soundboard. When I started to get my gear set up and saw this guy beside me with a great rig. Luckily this kind stranger (I have since found out was famous taper Bob Wagner) then let me patch out of the back of his deck, which was wonderful as he had a great 8 ft. mike stand set-up. He had a Sony deck and mics, but with that high stand his mic's were well above the crowd noise. We were about 15 to 20 feet FOB.

So Garcia treated us to a blistering Sugaree opener, the kind that drove the crowd wild. His leads mounted into a wave that crests, recedes, regroups, and comes back rolling in with such power and delight that adds a synergistic effect to our frenzied response as his rolling/soaring guitar work lift and subside with that band.

Then Beat In on Down the Line, TLEO and now it was Bob's turn in the spotlight with a Look's like Rain. About halfway through the song, I suddenly noticed something shimmering in the air between the band and me. I thought "what a fantastic lightshow! Or have I have shifted into fifth gear just a little early that I scheduled?” I staggered towards that disturbance in front of me to investigate.

People were dancing wildly in the middle of the floor as a waterfall played over them. It was about 25 feet in circumference. I put my hand in, water...hand out, no rain..I am standing in front of an indoor waterfall. what to do? I jumped into pouring rain that was INSIDE the middle of the auditorium! Then I stepped back and was out of it. I shook my head and lunged back into the deluge and danced through Looks Like Rain & then during Direwolf as well and a delightful All Over now. Complete with Donna in perfect pitch! Then Candyman and Lazy>Supplication before Bobby informed us "We're going to take a short break".

I staggered back to reload a new tape and then I did look for some validation of my experience. And I asked my friends if I was not infact 'soaking wet' as I patted my soaked shirt. They grinned knowingly and affirmed that, yes, in fact I was "all wet". ;-]

And then this unique show continued, (nice indoor waterfeature !) with a killer second set complete with a transportive Estimated>Eyes>drums>Wharf Rat>Truckin>Iko Iko>Around. And then after a lengthy absence from the stage the boys returned to play us 'Promised Land" as an encore.

As I left the auitorium I noticed the water standing on the ground outside, a summer storm? Was a it a leak in the roof or didn't the Dead conjure up the forces of nature as they were so prone to do?

But back to the important stuff, what were the Dead going to do next? Would Phil rev up his reverse gravity machine and pummel us with phil-bombs at the next show? Would they levitate the crowd, and have us all dance while floating in the thin Colorado air?

I HAD to follow them to those Red Rocks shows in 1978. So a roadtrip to Colorado it was. This was the Dead’s first Red Rocks jaunt (and my first as well, although my girlfriend (now wife) had seen Joni Mitchell there previously and raved about the venue) so my anticipation was so 'high'. In many ways. So I packed my taping and camping gear.

When we walked up to the Rocks entrance, the Feyline (or were they the John Scher guys?) Security behemoth that I will call "BigBoy' stopped me at the entrance to look through my Boy Scout backpack. He hefted out my NAK 550 out of the pack and held it up high, exclaiming “Hey, you can’t take this in!" I gave him my best perplexed look and said “What? It’s just a tape player.” (first lie) Then the giant BigBoy instructs me to “take that back to your car”. I retorted “I can’t, I hitchhiked to the show” (second lie). Beefy Bruiser BigBoy points to my ticket and says “You can’t take it in, the ticket says no recorders” and I tell him “look I don’t have any microphones” (third lie) and hold up my arms to be searched (my comrades had the mics with them). Then I signed loudly and popped open the back of the Nak deck and let eight D cell batteries drop onto the ground. "Look, I dumped out the batteries". BigBoy stood there with his arms crossed in front of me, but I could see a small crack in his resolve. So I pulled that thread “Look, I hitchhiked all the way here from Nebraska to see this show, would you hold onto this for me? It cost me $600 (which in ’78 was a lot of dough) but if you just hold it for me, and then I will find you after the show. You look like an honest guy.” (lie number four). I push the Nak towards him, and this deck is huge and weighs a ton, (a goddamn boat anchor). I really played my trump card here and was trying to hold my 'game face', Suddenly all the heads waiting in line to get in (and all my friends behind me) erupt with yells at BigBoy to hurry up and started chanting "let us in". BigBoy gives his mullet a shake and then points into the venue and looks and me and says “Go on, get out of here” and I dive headlong into my first Red Rocks show with a grin a mile wide(high)!

Followed by Mary with my mics and my buddies with my fresh batteries (lie number five) and my blank tapes. The batteries that I dumped out for BigBoy were already ‘dead’ (no pun intended). I again ran into that ‘kind stranger’ (Dr. Bob Wagner, FOB right side)) to plug out of his Sony again. Those two shows were stupefying, and the band obviously enjoyed playing there. I recall Jerry broke a string during the Scarlet>Fire, Phil leading the boys through “Cold Rain & Snow” with his bass punching that tune into a triumphant ‘strut’ that night.

We watched the clouds chase each other in the sky until it was dark and then looked out ‘over’ the Dead to see the distant lights of Denver sparking in the background as we listened to Eyes. Wharf Rat, Terrapin, Franklins and other aural wonders as we were perched in between those massive stony slabs jutting into the sky (and the Dead had a good view as well looking back at us).

As the Dead those two evenings took us all on an astounding journey of Americana, myth, rock and roll, country, space, jam, fable, fun, roller coaster, and turn on a dime delights, it all rolled into one. And then as they finished us all off with “Werewolves of London” we were crooning back our own howl of “Aoooooo” right back at the band. And Garcia was grinning ear to ear as he told us “good night”.

These are all I the details that I can wring out of these old synapses about taping 'back in the day'.

"The bad news is, there is no key to the universe,
the good news is, it was never locked".

Joined: Jun 6 2007
I didn't mention...

...the plethora of great Garcia Band audience tapes. The Garcia vault contains almost nothing recorded between 1979 and 1987 and there are very few SBDs in circulation from that period, but there are AUDs of many/most shows, thank God! Also, the great 4/3/76 and SO many others do not exist as SBDs...

Byerly's picture
Joined: Dec 12 2011

I have wanted to thank this person for the shows he taped in 84 and some other years I have found that were shows I attended. Doug has documented my personal trip on so many shows and his recordings have a way of bringing me back to my seat like no other recordings. Joe D'amico & Tony Suraci were also tapers I have looked for and downloaded. God bless the person who said yes to allowing the tapers section.


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